(director: James Foley; screenwriters: Nicholas Kazan/story by Elliott Lewitt and Nicholas Kazan; cinematographer: Juan Ruiz-Anchia; editor: Howard Smith; music: Patrick Leonard; cast: Sean Penn (Brad Whitewood Jr.), Christopher Walken (Brad Whitewood Sr.), Mary Stuart Masterson (Terry), Christopher Penn (Tommy), Millie Perkins (Julie Whitewood), R.D. Call (Dickie Whitewood), Candy Clark (Mary Sue), Eileen Ryan (Grandmother), Alan Autry (Ernie), Tracey Walter (Patch), David Strathairn (Pine), J. C. Quinn (Boyd), Jake Dengel (Lester); Runtime: 111; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Elliott Lewitt/Don Guest; MGM Home Entertainment (Orion); 1986)

“A grim true story thriller that never bores as much as it sickens.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A grim true story thriller that never bores as much as it sickens. It’s based on the Johnston family murders in Pennsylvania in 1978. Here the Johnston name is changed to Whitewood. James Foley(“Confidence”/”Perfect Stranger”/”After Dark”) stylishly directs. Nicholas Kazan, son of acclaimed director Elia, writes the hard-edged script and with Elliott Lewitt co-authors the story.

In rural Pennsylvania, in 1978, the toughie aimless Brad Whitewood Jr.(Sean Penn) is out of high school and lives with his half-brother Tommy (Christopher Penn, real brother of Sean), his maternal granny (Eileen Ryan) and mom (Millie Perkins).

Things brighten for the bored pick-up truck driving idler when his hardened criminal dad, Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken), returns to the area and he moves in with his hero. Brad also falls in love with the new high school girl in town Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson). Dad has a ruffian hillbilly gang that steals such things as tractors, cars and guns. He gladly mentors his sons to form their own gang to go on heists. Adoration for dad changes over time when he’s revealed as a murderer and a rapist. Things become relentlessly brutal as dad doesn’t trust that his son’s gang won’t rat him out and starts picking them off one at a time in a bloody family feud.

The pic, though pointless, offers a scary, violent and mesmerizing look up close at a dysfunctional family and at the dark side of rural American life. Walken and Sean Penn give strong performances, with the former’s performance just chilling. The pic is shot documentary style in the backwoods of Tennessee, and though it makes for powerful melodrama it left me bummed out with not much to ponder about what I just witnessed.

Sean Penn’s then wife Madonna sings on a soundtrack her hit song Live to Tell far too many times during the movie, until it becomes almost diabolical.